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Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks' complete run game

This week's GMC question from Marshall Faulk: "Being GMC Professional Grade means rising to the challenge when your team needs it most. Who needs to be the second-half MVP to finish the year strong?"


It's still my opinion that the Seahawks' offensive identity is centered on the run game. Seattle, at its core, is a smashmouth run team with a tough, stout, ballhawking defense and fundamentally sound special teams. That's who they are. That's who Pete Carroll wants them to be. That's how they won the Super Bowl last year.

In addition to being punch-you-in-the-mouth run team, Pete Carroll likes to use surgical strikes downfield to get explosive plays in the passing game, but in my mind, Marshawn Lynch, specifically, is the motor that runs the offense. When he's not getting his touches, the Seahawks are a different team. They look different. They feel different. The even act different. So, while Russell Wilson is an extremely important piece of the puzzle -- he's the quarterback, and this is the NFL -- I still think that the offense works best when Wilson is a facilitator rather than the centerpiece.

So, while Wilson probably remains the "most important player" on the Seahawks, I think that Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks run game -- that means, by extension, the offensive line, tight ends, and Garry Gilliam -- need to be the ones to rise to the challenge of carrying this team in the second half.

They got a great start last week, as Seattle rushed for an NFL-season-high and franchise record 350 yards in an eventual blowout of New York.

The cool thing about their run game this past week was that they put a TON of different schemes and plays on tape. The Chiefs have their hands full in preparing for the full force of Seattle's run-play play-sheet.

I've been meaning to do something like this all season -- basically giving an update on what Seattle's doing in the run game, really -- and this presented the perfect opportunity.

So, let's go through it. (Note: These aren't necessarily the correct names or proper syntax of what the Seahawks call these different plays, but it's just how I think of them.)

Inside Zone Read Option:

The "inside zone read option" is now Seattle's "base" run. If you look around the NFL, you'll see teams with foundational run plays that more or less represent them: In Houston, it's the "wide/outside zone," which is a descendant of the Mike Shanahan family of zone blocking. Just imagine Arian Foster running horizontally at the snap before finding a crease and cutting upfield. The Niners' "base" run game, I would venture, is probably the "Power-O." This is characterized by pulling linemen and runs that go off tackle or off guard, rather than around the end. In Philly, it's the "outside zone read option." You'll see this play later in this post, but just picture Shady McCoy taking a zone-read handoff horizontally at the snap and trying to get the corner or cut it up field. Those are just a few examples.

Seattle's old "base" run game was definitely the wide zone, or, the same type of thing that Houston or Cleveland now run. Over the past few years though, Seattle has moved to using the Read Option much more, and the Inside Zone Read Option has become their weapon of choice. They use it on most third-and-short plays, most goal-line plays, and well, just about everywhere else. It's a great play because Russell Wilson is a true threat to run the football, and this confounds the defense's ability to match the numbers Seattle presents as blockers.

Anyway -- we've talked about the read option a ton before. It's nothing new. Seattle's been using it for several seasons now. But, it's still working like a charm, especially if they're playing the Giants, who seemingly have no idea how to stop it.

(NOTE: Click on the GIF to get the original version at gfycat -- you can resize, pause and rewind, or even play them in slow-motion there)

Seattle got all five of their rushing touchdowns on the inside zone read option play -- four on handoffs to Marshawn Lynch and then one by Russell Wilson late in the game when he kept it. I'm not going to GIF all five of them, but here are two (one above, one below).

The key on both plays is the tight end's block on the defensive end. Watch above as Luke Willson washes the end down the line, which allows Lynch to dive right off his hip. The guy on the end, who is responsible for a Russell Wilson keeper, is worthless in this short yardage, because, well, it's Lynch.

The cool thing about this play is that Lynch can follow the jumble of bodies across Wilson and to the left side of the line, if that's the path of least resistance. He can also just cut it straight up the field on the weakside of the line as everyone flows to the strongside, which he definitely likes to do (and does here on both plays), or, Wilson can keep it. So, the Seahawks essentially can use almost the entire field. It's hard for the defense because they can't just bunch up in one area that they think the ball will be going.

Below, you see a similar thing happen. Garry Gilliam dominates at the point of attack as a 300 pound tight end, and Lynch just goes off his hip. The mesh point handoff is pretty screwy, but it works.

Anyway. I could've probably made like 15 or 20 GIFs of this playcall as it happened throughout the game, but you get it.

Outside Zone Read Option:

The other main type of read option play that the Seahawks use is the Outside Zone Read Option. This is the Chip Kelly run. This is the run that Seattle used to do with Percy Harvin in the game. They now occasionally do it with Christine Michael, because he brings a speed element to Seattle's backfield that Lynch and Robert Turbin don't really have.

The key to the outside zone read option is not the mesh point handoff. In this case, it's almost a given that Wilson will hand off, and he may not even actually be reading anything on this. That said, he does have the option of keeping the football if the defense crashes too aggressively to the left.

Watch Jason Pierre-Paul (#90). He has to hesitate slightly to make sure Wilson's not keeping it. This prevents him from chasing Michael down before the play can develop.

The key blocks on this play are by the right tackle Justin Britt, the tight end Luke Willson, and the wide receiver, Doug Baldwin, who seals a nickelback who is coming up to support the run. It's all about getting Michael as wide as possible as quickly as possible, then finding a lane to cut downfield with.

Watch J.R. Sweezy and Justin Britt in order to understand why athleticism and footspeed are two key traits in this offensive scheme. They have to reach block across their bodies, and that ain't easy.

Packaged Plays:

I did not include these with the Inside Zone Read Option section because technically they're a little different. On these sets, Seattle has the option of handing off to Marshawn Lynch on the read option, having Russell Wilson keep the ball, or having Wilson pass out to the edge on a screen pass. So, they're still inside zone read option plays, but there's an extra option or three added in to make this "packaged."

There are other options in this "Packaged Play" that Seattle can run as well, including the "pop pass," which is a fake read option keeper that Russell Wilson would pass on. It's essentially a play action pass. So, there are four options in every Packaged Play. You can line up in the exact same formation four straight times, without huddling, and based on what the defense is doing, run any of those four options. Everyone's job remains the same.

A few examples:

First, check out the absurdly wide splits these receivers are taking. They're practically lining up out of bounds. This is as wide of splits on offense that I can remember the Seahawks ever running (also as wide as legally possible, obviously).

I'd guess that the obvious goal here is to spread the defense out horizontally.

These first two plays were Russell Wilson keepers. No one on the Giants, apparently, remembered that Wilson can run, so they all just ignored him.

This happened many times. Either the Giants did not practice defending Seattle's foundational run play (unlikely), or they were extremely undisciplined (likely).

Of course, on these packaged plays, most of the time, Wilson will hand off. Examples below:

So, again, Seattle's base run game uses the Read Option with Zone Blocking up front. They can run the inside zone read, the outsize zone read, and they can do both out of packaged plays. It's all gravy.

Off of the Read Option stuff, there are a lot of things that you can do as auxiliary plays to make your offense more multiple. Let's take a look at a few things Seattle does to complement their foundation.

Strong Lead:

Seattle still likes to line up in their I-formation and run fullback lead, either to the strong side of the formation or the weak side. Below, you'll see one example of a strong lead. It's zone blocking up front -- almost all of Seattle's run plays use zone blocking -- and new fullback Will Tukuafu leads the charge.

The most impressive block on this play is by Max Unger. He snaps the ball, and with a little help from Alvin Bailey, manages to maneuver himself to the other side of the nose tackle and seal him off from the run lane. Goddamn, it's good to have Max back. These I-formation runs tend to get blown up in the backfield when the center can't get in the way of the NT, but Max does his job here.

Alvin Bailey, for his part at left guard, does a great job of helping with the initial combo block on the nose tackle, then quickly strafes off of that and finds, then seals, the filling linebacker. This is absolutely TEXTBOOK. If he whiffs on that block, #57 is hitting Marshawn when he comes through the hole.

Of course, you don't hate what Tukuafu did here either.

Said Will Tukuafu this week: "Marshawn, he told me the first day I came over here, 'you can do no wrong.' So, I'm like, 'What? So how do you want me to attack this guy? You want me to get my hat on the outside?' and he was like, ‘Psssh, dude, just go hit him. We're going to race to try to see who can hit him first. Try to see if you can beat me there.'

"I was like, 'alright, let's go!'"

Weak Lead:

The nice part of the I-formation is that the defense never really knows which direction you're going to be running. In the shotgun stuff, you typically see Lynch take the handoff and cross Russell's face before cutting upfield. Here, Lynch can go right or left. The defense just doesn't know.

In the case below, you can see how the defense responds to Garry Gilliam's motion to the left. The Hawks go to the weak, closed side of the field here though, and at the point of attack, do a great job of getting blocks laid down.

That said, the Giants pursue this well, and the middle linebacker, #53, flows to cut Lynch off as the gap opens up. This is where the Marshawn Lynch effect comes into play. The Giants have this play defended, but Lynch just beats the guy in front of him. Then he beats another guy in front of him. He's finally dragged down by about eight dudes.

Naked Boot

You'll see Russell do this a few times a game, maybe. If the defense is cheating while defending the strong lead, it's a nice constraint to just keep the ball and run a naked bootleg. Wilson has the option of throwing here, but since it's a run play, I think he just tucks the football away and knows he's running it all along.

As the caption indicates, there is a loooooooot of room to run. This is against an eight-man front. The Giants are so worried about Lynch that they seem to forget that Wilson has legs. He punishes them for it.

I don't know if Wilson even calls this in the huddle or if he just gets to the line and decides to run it himself. I suspect he has this option if he sees something he likes, but this one looked called all the way.


The Seahawks don't use Power-O concepts all that often but will dabble with it now and again. Here, you can see J.R. Sweezy pull to his left and lead to the left. The fullback leads left as well. Robert Turbin gets a nice crease up the middle and picks up a solid chunk of yardage. It looks like it's designed to go off tackle/tight end outside, but either way, it's a nice gain.

Draw play:

I wrote about Seattle starting to incorporate the draw play a few weeks ago, and since then the Seahawks, have been doing it more and more. It's the inverse to a playaction pass -- a pass-action run. The Seahawks pass block on the snap, and lull the Giants into thinking it's a pass (the linebackers and safeties, generally, are looking at what the offensive line does at the snap so they can react quickly).

With a delayed handoff, Marshawn breaks a tackle and picks up another solid chunk of yardage, thanks to some great blocking up front by Luke Willson. Willson had a great game blocking, by the way, before he went out with an ankle injury.

Outside/Wide Zone:

Oh, hey, old friend! This used to be Seattle's staple run (though, not generally out of the pistol formation, usually this would come from Wilson under center.) It's a wide zone, or outside zone, run. This is not to be confused with an "outsize zone read option" run. The zone here refers to the zone blocking up front, not a "zone read" element.

Here it is. Seattle's old reliable. Remember that block by Unger above that I was raving about? Well, he does it again here. Lynch then cuts upfield off of Alvin Bailey, when the defensive end tries to get outside of Bailey to get to Lynch's running path. This is standard zone running -- get horizontal, stretch the defense out, and if they over pursue, cut it upfield.

On the backside, you get cut blocks and maximum effort downfield. Look at how many blockers Lynch has around him once he gets to the second level! Those are linemen from the backside of the play!

Dive-Pitch Option

I love this play. The Seahawks have only used it a few times this season (one was Percy Harvin's touchdown against the Chargers). But, it's a nice changeup and apparently very effective in 3rd and 1 situations. When you have the defense crowding the middle expecting a plunge up the gut for a first down try, this is a great spot to fake the dive, and pitch it to your speed player on the perimeter. In this case, it's Christine Michael.

Said Darrell Bevell, on Michael, "we wanted to use his speed -- he has really good speed. He's able to hit some things, so we're just giving him some small packages, trying to get him involved in the game, use his speed as best as we can, and take a couple of plays off Marshawn [Lynch] as well. He performed well in that role and we'll see how we can expand it.


Ok, so there you have it. I'm sure the Seahawks have a multitude of other run plays at their disposal -- but in general, they got to flex their playsheet quite a bit against the Giants. Here's to hoping they can keep the momentum going against Kansas City, and possibly break out a few more wrinkles that I can write about next week.

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